Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 6.3]

Chris wasn’t making a lot of money in his new job. The School Psychology department had offered me an assistantship teaching adolescent psychology, but that didn’t start for a few more months. So, I decided to take any job I could find in the interim. One job I knew I could do was waitressing. I spent a morning applying to several restaurants in our college town. Each time I spoke with a manager, though, they said the summer was very slow and they were fully staffed at the moment. I was worried I might not be able to find employment at all. I drove to a temporary staffing agency and completed an application, as well as a series of personality and skills assessments. When I finished those, a staffing agent sat down with me to go over everything. I explained my situation, which I think took her aback a bit. I assured her I was a hard worker, and I asked if she had any clerical job openings.

I was surprised when she said, “We only have two jobs open now—one for a machinist and one for a cafeteria worker. They both pay ten dollars an hour.”

I asked, “What are the odds of anything clerical coming along soon?”

“Let me put it this way. Clerical jobs aren’t as likely to open as other types, and we currently have 227 people in our system waiting for temporary work.”

It bothered me to hear so many people in the town were out of work, but my next question was, “If there are so many people who need a job, why isn’t anyone taking one of those two openings?”

“Well, honestly? People think those jobs are beneath them.”

I was floored that people, especially unemployed people, would rather go poor than take a job that was beneath them. I very seriously asked, “Do you think I could get hired for the cafeteria position?”

“Well, you’ll have to interview first, but I don’t see why they wouldn’t hire you.”

The next morning, I drove to my interview. The position involved preparing and serving food to employees in a cafeteria at a pharmaceutical manufacturing company. I explained my situation to the manager, Peggy. After some convincing and promising on my part that I would be reliable and not ditch her before my sixty-day contract was up, she hired me. All I asked was that she kept my degrees a secret for fear of turning someone off with them.

My hours were from 5:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Breakfast was served from seven to ten. Lunch was served from eleven to one; the rest was preparation and cleaning. I would find myself chopping vegetables after all! Oh, the irony.

I joined a team of five women and one man. Two of the more helpful women reminded me of Grandma Shultz. One woman was gruff and bossy, another woman hardly spoke at all, and the last woman was about my age and lived in a facility for developmentally disabled adults. She was high-functioning in my opinion. The male was from the same facility and wasn’t so highly functioning. He mumbled a lot, laughed to himself, complained about being overworked, and flew off the handle if people looked at him in a way he perceived was weird. When he was in a good mood and feeling feisty, he liked to sexually harass the rest of us.

In a weird way, I think I balanced things out in the cafeteria. Everyone else seemed to take at least some issue with at least one other person on staff, but I seemed to diffuse the friction. They all rallied together to playfully razz me about my utter lack of knowledge in the kitchen.

It was endless fun for them when I’d ask a sincere and apparently stupid question like, “Is there a particular way you’d like these cucumbers cut for the salad bar?”

Someone would surely retort, “Just cut ’em so they can eat ’em, Girl.”

When I showed surprise at the fact that certain foods could be made from a dehydrated powder, someone sarcastically asked, “You been livin’ under a rock, Sweetie?”

But their favorite moment was the time I goofed up my math when I was making a vat of lemonade and over-concentrated it ten-fold.

“Didn’t you study math in college, Honey?”

“Have you ever cooked before?”

“How are you gonna feed your children someday? Hope they don’t starve to death!”

I didn’t get defensive and appreciated the humor in what they were saying, so I laughed right along with them. Overall, the employee-customers treated me well, except for the time I received a verbal lashing from a woman to whom I’d accidentally given a slice of stale bread. Her intention was to humiliate me, and she succeeded.

One lunch, when I was merrily serving mashed potatoes in my hairnet and rubber gloves, the director of human resources approached me and asked if I would come to his office. He’d asked Peggy who the “new smiley girl” was, and Peggy told him my story and that I had a Ph.D. in educational psychology. He had a master’s degree in the same thing and wanted to talk to me about two new positions being created in the training department. The positions entailed performing an extensive needs analysis and then creating curricula and training materials for all the different manufacturing positions in the plant. I told him I’d never done anything like that before. He assured me my degree had given me the skills to figure it out. He also thought I had the right personality for the job, which to him was even more important. The positions were to be posted in the next few months and he hoped I would apply for one. I stayed working in the cafeteria and seriously considered it.

In the meantime, Chris’ start-up company lost the big contract they’d hired Chris to lead, so they let him go—just like that. Thankfully, he was able to quickly locate a similar job in a town an hour away, but it required a lot of travel and long hours. I brought home some job openings from the pharmaceutical company when I found out there were certain positions in the biology and chemistry labs for which Chris was qualified. He applied for two, and when things played out, he and I were both offered jobs at the company within a week of each other and were in the same orientation class.

We were elated to have these positions. For the first time, we felt a sense of job security and financial stability. And I was relieved to not have another three years of graduate school ahead of me. Within a few months, the thought crept into my head that now might be a good time to have a child, if we were going to have one.

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